The Time That Was at Chasen's

Photo via Flickr user Alan LightIn 1936 Dave Chasen was a hardscrabble, personable former vaudevillian and stand-in for the Three Stooges who one day happened to perfect a chili recipe in director Frank Capra's kitchen. On the strength of that chili, with the help of famous friends, he opened a downscale restaurant in Beverly Hills that quickly became a casual hangout for folks like Scott Fitzgerald and Clark Gable.

By the 1950s Chasen's had morphed into the tony, clubby go-to spot for the Rat Pack generation, where it was always "celebration time." By the '60s Elizabeth Taylor's prodigious appetites made Chasen's world famous, when she had chili from the restaurant shipped to her every two weeks while filming the costly epic Cleopatra.

Image courtesy UCLA Library Digital CollectionsThe atmosphere inside Chasen's was like an A-list Applebee's. A painting of regular patron W.C. Fields dressed as Queen Victoria (Jack Lemmon owned a smaller version) greeted tipsy patrons. A model TWA airplane hung over the dark bar, and autographed photos and knick knacks covered the walls. Leather booths were reserved for regulars like Alfred Hitchcock and Spencer Tracy, and the waiters were beloved-tuxedo wearing contemporaries of the old guard, ready with a light, a joke and an aperitif. If you were a favored guest, regal joint mistress Maude Chasen would invite you into her office for pre-dinner drinks, served from a hidden bar that lowered from the ceiling.

The place had a decidedly masculine vibe. One waiter of 30+ years claimed his wife never set foot in the restaurant. The food was heavy: the famous "hobo steak" was flame broiled in front of you, and the vegetables were covered in cream. The drinks were strong and elaborate and the dinner crowd loud and boisterous, filled with "saloon people" like Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Gregory Peck and Frank Sinatra. Two little people jumped out of a cake at Jimmy Stewart's bachelor party in the banquet room, and Orson Welles once threw a piece of hobo steak at John Houseman on the main floor during a fight.

Photo courtesy LifeIt is perhaps not surprising that presidents, especially Nixon and Reagan, loved Chasen's and its raucous boardroom vibe. Reagan proposed to Nancy in his favorite booth, which is now at the Reagan Library. Queen Elizabeth sipped gin martinis here when she was in town, and one night the mobster Micky Cohen and J. Edgar Hoover stared each other down while downing cocktails at opposite ends of the room.

Chasen's retained its relevance into the '70s -- in the 1930s Shirley Temple complained that she couldn't drink like the adults, so a bartender whipped up the famous namesake drink in her honor. Forty years later, Donna Summer wrote "She Works Hard for the Money" about Onetta, the long-time female bathroom attendant, on a piece of Chasen's toilet paper.

Chasen's continued on until 1995, and its loyal patrons and staff grew old together. The Chasen's of the '80s and '90s was a place frozen in time, where the Rat Pack still ruled. The charm of such a heavy atmosphere and heavier food was lost on the modern generation. But the film producer David Brown said it best, when he mused on Chasen's closing and the death of his rambunctious, gluttonous, mid-century generation: "There are no more eaters. People want to be thin and they hope to live longer, but I don't think they'll live as well or have nearly as much fun.''

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About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, historian, and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. She is a frequent contributor to Curbed and Atlas Obscura, and leads historical tours all around Los Angeles for Obscura Society LA.
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